When we inaugurated our Managing Partner Elite list last year, we were curious to see whether our idea of what makes a great firm leader would actually pan out in reality, and whether the characteristics we had i

dentified as our criteria were actually those exhibited by the heads of successful firms.

We're happy to say that they were -- with a twist.

The twist is that while most successful firm leaders display a similar set of characteristics (see our list below), they don't display them all to the same degree. Some are more given to planning, while others devote their energy to looking after their staff, and still others rely heavily on entrepreneurial drive. In turn, their primary characteristics drive the environment and culture of their firms.

But at base, they all display some of the following traits:

They have a plan. Even if they haven't developed a formal written strategy, great firm leaders know exactly where they want to take their firms. Of course, the best of the best then write it down and share it with everyone, so they can all make the journey together.

They're entrepreneurial and pioneering. While they do exist, it's rare to find a successful firm leader who doesn't want to explore new niches or practice areas or even whole new models of business. And they're never afraid to try new things.

They value their people. And not just because people are hard to come by these days - great leaders know that great firms need great people no matter what the job market looks like.

They value technology. They recognize that IT is the single-most important factor in keeping their firm efficient and profitable, and that without it, they can't succeed.

They don't manage; they lead. Great managers make the most of the current situation; great leaders make a new situation.

With all those characteristics in mind, we're almost ready to unveil this year's class of the MP Elite -- but first we should note a major change from last year: There are women on our 2013 list. After last year's call for submissions yielded a list composed entirely of white men (which is, unfortunately, in keeping with the profile of firm leaders in general), we made a point of saying that this year we wanted to be able to consider some great female MPs for the list.

We asked and you answered, giving us a number of successful women to choose from. Now here's your assignment for 2014: Make sure that we get to consider some great minority managing partners!

And if you're not sure what exactly makes a great MP, here are 10 who fit the bill - our 2013 MP Elite.

 

Finding focus

Brian Amann / TaxOps

MP since 2009; founded in 2003

You can argue over what's the most important quality for a great managing partner -- is it entrepreneurial spirit? the ability to inspire people? having a strong vision for the future? -- but few would disagree that the ability to focus is absolutely indispensable, and that it underpins many of the more high-profile qualities.

Brian Amann is a perfect example of a leader who knows how to focus: His Colorado firm, TaxOps, which reported 359 percent growth in revenue in the three years to the end of 2012, is all about tax and nothing else. When he adds a new service line, it's tax-related; when he hires a new employee, you can be sure they're a tax expert. And because that kind of expertise is critical to the firm, Amann also focuses on recruiting and retaining the best. Almost 70 percent of his staff have advanced degrees, and Amann helps them maintain their technical and professional edge with free continuing education. He also implemented a real-time mentoring system, and every employee has a career plan that's co-developed with the partners of the firm. (This may help explain why TaxOps was No. 1 among small firms on our Best Firms to Work For list last year.)

Just as important as being able to maintain a tight focus is knowing what not to focus on: Amann has ditched a number of policies that are common in the profession because they "can slow a firm down and do not add value" -- which is why TaxOps doesn't have rigid office hours, a dress code, or time sheets.

 

Staying entrepreneurial

Andy Armanino / Armanino

MP since 2005; joined in 1989

As his firm grows larger -- it will report around $115 million in revenue for 2013, and is among the top 30 firms nationwide -- Andy Armanino says his biggest challenge is maintaining the entrepreneurial feeling that it had in its early days. And that makes sense, because it is Armanino's willingness to think outside the box and pursue change that helps drive his firm's success.

"The dynamics of our profession require constant change," he says, and he's clearly up for it, whether it's in building a top-flight technology consulting practice based on cutting-edge solutions, or thinking way, way outside the box by launching AMF Media Group, a marketing and communications agency that serves both the firm and a growing roster of outside clients, and is seeing 50 percent growth.

And like any good entrepreneur, Armanino, who also serves as chair of firm association Moore Stephens North American, is always on the lookout for new opportunities, like the recent acquisition that gave his self-described "unique firm from the West Coast that does things a little differently" its first outpost east of the Rockies. Don't expect a national expansion plan, though, as Armanino isn't interested in growth for growth's sake. While he's willing to take risks, "We bet on winners," he says.

 

A strong vision

John Bly / LB&A CPA

Founded in 2004

John Bly moves fast. How fast? How about growth of 4,000 percent since he founded his firm fast? How about 10 mergers and acquisitions in the same period fast? That's fast - and one of the reasons Bly is able to move so fast is because he knows where he's going. Not so much geographically, though he does have plans for continuing expansion throughout North Carolina, but chronologically. Specifically, Bly is headed for 2017, and the vision of his firm in that year that he has posted on his Web site. This incredibly detailed "Painted Picture" of what LB&A will look like in the future gives Bly a set of landmarks to steer for. So whether he's moving his firm to the cloud and equipping his staff the latest hardware and software, or expanding his roster of services, you know it's all going according to plan.

 

From past to future

Tom Bonadio / The Bonadio Group

Founded in 1978

Knowing where you're going is important for managing partners, which is why so many of them develop strategic plans for their firms. And Tom Bonadio is no exception: The Bonadio Group has a detailed plan that it periodically revisits and updates. But Bonadio doesn't just know where he's going -- he has a strong sense of where he's been. Knowing that the Top 100 Firm than now blankets upstate New York and Vermont was once no bigger than his kitchen table, and that it's $54 million in annual revenue was once no more than $100,000, and that he has built it all step by step no doubt brings a valuable perspective.

Bonadio started with desktop adding machines and manual typewriters, and that may be why the firm now has all the latest equipment, including video conferencing capabilities in its conference rooms and even between desktop computers across the firm. His first employee was his mother, and that may be why he pays so much attention to his 369 employees, with comprehensive training programs and bonuses for excellence, as well as the Bonadio Leadership University that trains the next generation of leadership. Knowing where you've been can often be as valuable as knowing where you're going; knowing both has clearly been a key to success for Bonadio.

 

A hand's-on pioneer

Tracey Early / Untracht Early

Co-founded in 1993

We'll try not to make too much of this pioneering MP's last name being Early, but it's pretty hard to ignore the fact that she did an awful lot of things long before anyone else. Start with her co-founding and running her own firm years before the accounting profession even realized that it didn't have enough female leaders. That alone would be impressive, but she and her firm have also been strong on technology, including going paperless in 1995. And she has led them into new service areas early on, creating a financial services/alternative investment practice area in 1994, and a family office practice in 2003, both before the profession at large had fully realized the opportunities both offered.

But being a pioneer doesn't mean you get a pass on the day-to-day. Early balances being deeply involved with her clients with continuing to build her firm's long-term strategy with her partner group and her co-founding principal, and still manages to handle in-person, one-on-one reviews with all the staff who report to her -- almost 50 percent of the firm.

 

Planning for success

Ed Guttenplan / Wilkin & Guttenplan

Co-founded in 1983

You can take it for granted that each of our MP Elite runs a successful firm; the question is, what characteristics led to that success? With Ed Guttenplan, we strongly suspect it has something to do with a deeply ingrained planning habit, and an equally deep-seated concern for his employees. Wilkin & Guttenplan has had a formal strategic plan for over 20 years (most firms still don't have one), and has had a succession plan in place for 15 years (ditto). Guttenplan himself leads the firm's annual partner retreat, which is heavy on strategic planning.

That kind of foresight and long-term thinking allows Guttenplan to focus on developing his staff. He plays a major role in identifying future leaders for the firm's Professional Growth Academy, and has built a strong "family-like" culture at the firm. It's certainly paying off: The firm reports extremely low turnover, with average partner tenure of over 20 years.

 

Employees first

Jim Kaufman / Kaufman Rossin

CEO since 2012; managing principal and co-founder since 1962

Think about it: The difference between being a sole practitioner and running a firm is ... having employees. And how you manage them can make all the difference. When Jim Kaufman co-founded his Top 100 Firm in Miami 50 years ago, he and the firm's management quickly implemented an unusual model: "Employees first, clients second, and shareholders third." Even more unusual, they made "Joy at Work" one of their core values, which may explain why Kaufman Rossin has been named the No. 1 Large Firm to Work For several times by Accounting Today.

But no matter how joyful it is, it's still work, and Kaufman doesn't lose sight of that, whether he's pursuing mergers that expand the firm's reach, launching new services like the firm's top-rated hedge fund administration practice, or staying on top of new technologies, like the state-of-the-art computer forensics lab the firm built to boost its forensic and investigative practice.

 

The full package

Victoria Martin / Martin Starnes & Associates

Co-founded in 1987

There's an old line about Ginger Rogers: She did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in a dress. Victoria Martin isn't on the MP Elite because we wanted to include more women - she's on the list because she does everything great firm leaders do. Planning? Check -- the firm has been pursuing a regularly updated strategic plan for years, and has a growth and attrition plan in place to stay ahead of the staffing curve. Staying on the cutting edge of technology? Check -- Martin has had staff working remotely since the 1990s, and firmly believes that, "The value of technology far exceeds its costs." Innovating in services? Check -- in addition to a broad range of services, the firm offers clients "premium time," during which no smaller enagements are scheduled, and premium clients' engagements take precedence. Looking after employees? Check -- "Happy staff make for happy clients," she says, and backs it up with a roster of employee-friendly policies, including the ability to define much of their own schedules.

That she does all that backwards and in a dress (purely metaphorically speaking) is just icing on the cake.

 

E pluribus unum

Maria Montie / ShindelRock

MP since 2008; joined in 1994

The firm Maria Montie joined in 1994, she says, was really three separate practices that shared overhead. If that sounds familiar, it may be because it's a fairly common predicament for many small firms. What makes Montie stand out is that she did something about it: working with the partners to create a truly combined practice and a management structure and a succession plan that will last when she and they have moved on. And once she had a single firm, she worked with her team on implementing every best practice you've ever heard of, from a rebranding to mentoring, from work-life balance to uniform work processes, and from updating the firm's technology to putting a new emphasis on training.

And if all that isn't enough, we'll point out that she's a very, very avid rock climber -- a passion that got her named our Accountant of the Month in 2012, for demonstrating that accountants are many things, but boring isn't one of them.

 

Expansion and innovation

Greg Skoda / Skoda Minotti

Co-founded in 2001

Greg Skoda is no stranger to expansion and innovation, or to both at the same time; after all, an earlier firm of his was the foundation of Century Business Services in the late 1990s, and he spent several years helping lead the consolidator as it pioneered a new firm model and rolled up practices across the country. With that background, it's hardly surprising that when Skoda emerged from what had become CBIZ to form Skoda Minotti, one of his major avenues to growth would be M&A.

The firm has completed 14 deals since its inception, boosting its revenue by over 1,800 percent and its staff by 1,400 percent.

Skoda's also not afraid to expand beyond the traditional bounds of accounting work to new service areas both conceptually near, like wealth management, valuation and litigation advisory, and IT, and far, like professional staffing and strategic marketing. AT

To see the 2012 Class of the MP Elite, see our slideshow.

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